Important Lessons Learned: Working in Challenging Communities

One of the most challenging and simultaneously essential lessons learned from the WaSH-UP programme’s continued attempts to succeed in Langrug concerned working in the challenging communities in informal settlements. The pieces of working with communities we have identified as vital to understand are communication, internal competition relating to money, and unproductive work expectations.


Through working in Langrug, we identified open, honest, and consistent communication in the community as a major factor in the success of projects like WaSH-UP. Community members need to have a clear understanding of the roles of members who working on the project. For example, when trying to simultaneously create a kiosk and an aftercare programme in the facility, the women running the kiosk did not communicate their plan to use the same facility space as the women running the aftercare programme. As a result, there was substantial conflict over a problem that was simply solved. Furthermore, communication is not open and honest due to overall distrust in the community. Often, when asked a question about moving forward with the kiosk or aftercare, the community will provide one response with minimal discussion resulting from this response. This does not reflect the diverse opinions and ideas of the working group and creates resentment among the members who do not get to express their thoughts. The cause of this dilemma is complex, but seems to result from the gossip prevalent in the community creating a feeling of distrust in the community. Though certainly not simple to implement, creating a trusting culture would help this immensely.

Additionally, communication between our teams and the community was not always ideal. Beyond the language barrier, which played a minor role in communication, there was also confusion about expectations, planning, and the direction of the project. We were very open to exploring a multitude of possibilities about where the project could go, but members of the community initially did not like this and wanted more concrete ideas. Improved communication could have cleared up these expectations and we could have worked more collaboratively towards a common goal. In other cases, we did recognize areas to improve communication. Community members told us they preferred knowing the plan for each day of the week at the beginning of the week, so from then on we would work with them to make a weekly agenda on Monday mornings. Communication was a key element in our strong working relationships, but can always be improved for advancement.

Monetary Competition

Relating to the distrust in the community is the substantial competition between community members often relating to the subject of money. For instance, community members are often jealous of the caretakers who work in the facility. Those who live around the facility envy the jobs of the caretakers, despite the fact that the people living around the facility were initially offered the jobs but denied them (Sizwe Mxobo, personal communication). Additionally, the caretakers often work without pay and started as volunteers. The confusion around the caretaker position causes a lot of resentment from those who do not have a steady job. Additionally, finding a dedicated working group to consistently run the facility and its associated services is an immense challenge. In the context of informal settlements, money is essential to survival and many women will leave the working group for any better-paying employment, even when it is temporary for a week or two. Finally, the creation of a new facility in Zwelitsha, the area of Langrug neighboring Mandela Park, has caused conflict over new jobs in construction and maintenance as well as the prospect of having to financially support another larger facility.

Expectations for Working Relations

The final challenge learned from working with the Langrug community was the differing expectations in working relationships among students, community members, and other stakeholders, which we believe can be unproductive and hinder the progress of WaSH-UP. For example, it was a challenge to have focused discussions on work subjects, despite the ease of lengthy social conversations. Additionally, it was difficult to have a working day longer than three hours because the community members became too tired and unmotivated to work, and frequently would try to find ways to make the working day shorter. Furthermore, basic work practices common in Western culture such as punctuality, productive teamwork, and consistent completion of work responsibilities to the best of one’s abilities were not always applied in Langrug, making it difficult to complete complex projects requiring sustained energy, attention, and commitment.

Putting It All Together: The Need for Shared Action Learning

Shared Action Learning (SAL) is a method with philosophical and strategic underpinnings commonly used at the Cape Town Project Centre (Learn more about Shared Action Learning as a concept under the “What is Shared Action Learning?” page). It can be used to improve project outcomes by focusing on underappreciated but significant areas such as communication, collaboration, and a deeper understanding of each other. The recognition of the community members as people with distinct backgrounds allowed us to realize some of the reasons for competition of money. Furthermore, understanding their pasts helped us to see their differing expectations for working relations, and try to find a common ground to make our project work most effectively. Most importantly, Shared Action Learning promotes strong collaboration and communication. Working with, as opposed to working for, a community leads to a deeper understanding of all intricacies relevant to community development, and ultimately can lead to greater acceptance and sustainability. Communication and connecting with co-researchers is necessary to collaboratively work with them. When we worked with our community to create manuals, buy paint, or buy books for the library, they were extremely motivated to complete these projects. When we came in with predetermined ideas, or tried to uncover their ideas about general topics, they would go along with the plan or wait for suggestions. In these situations, their enthusiasm and participation were noticeably diminished. Although we tried to have a variety of activities throughout the day to keep everyone engaged, there was always a difference in participation when doing active jobs versus planning and discussion. Within the SAL model, the balance between planning and acting is difficult to maintain, especially when certain projects require more planning or acting depending on their nature. While we tried to achieve this balance, we still struggled to keep community members engaged fully for certain activities.